The rubberized butt shot was the first scene to catch me off guard; I remember being a teen when I saw Batman's rubber molded ass on film in '97 and two things happened to me that day. One, I learned the value of money because I had spent six dollars on a Batman & Robin ticket, and two, I realised I needed to talk to the person responsible for this mess—director Joel Schumacher.
Twenty years later, mission accomplished.
"Look, I apologize," Schumacher told me in a phone interview last week. "I want to apologize to every fan that was dissapointed, because I think I owe them that."
The apology seemed like a good way to start because Batman & Robin was terrible, not by my DC fanboy standards, but by historical standards. It was so bad in fact that the main star and co-star went on the record stating as much, "It was a difficult film to be good in," said George Clooney in an interview with Total Film. And later, Chris O'Donnell said, "On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid's toy."
When I look back at the 20th anniversary of Batman & Robin, I'm still reminded of the cringe-fest that the 1997 film was, compared to previous iterations of Batman—and I'm including the campy 1960s live-action show. Batman & Robin ignored the popular direction that Tim Burton took with his brooding Batman and went with a colourful, Vegas-styled vision rife with bat-ice-skates, sky surfing, and bat nipples.
I wondered what the man that made great films like The Lost Boys, 8mm, A Time to Kill, Phone Booth, and Batman Forever (not great but not terrible) was thinking and thankfully, Joel Schumacher was willing to talk to VICE and shed some light on the making of the film.
VICE: You seemed to have some decent success with Batman Forever, at least nobody hated it completely. Why a sequel?
Joel Schumacher: You know, I just knew not to do sequel ever. If you get lucky walk away. But everybody at Warner Brothers just expected me to do one, and maybe it was some hubris on my part. I had a batting average of 1.000 here and so I went from falling down a bit after Lost Boys to a kind of a genius with The Client, a big blockbuster with Batman Forever, then woh woh With A Time to Kill, so my batting average was good. I never planned on being, that dreadful quote, 'a blockbuster king' because my other films were much smaller and had just found success with the audience and not often with the critics, which is really why we wrote them. And then after Batman & Robin, I was scum. It was like I had murdered a baby.
So all the decisions that went into the sequel, the mere fact that you had a sequel at all was somewhat due to ego on your part?
Of course! Now I don't think so completely, the box office was in search of its next hit movie financially so there was pressure. Look, I'm a very big boy. I take full responsibility. I walked into it with my eyes open and what I really feel bad about is the crew. We all know how great movie crews are and special effects, stunt people and everybody that breaks their asses along with the cast. Everybody worked really hard under very long hours. So I feel like their work wasn't acknowledged like it could have been.
So when you say pressures, was there anything beyond just you that transformed Batman & Robin into what it was?
A lot of it was my choice. No one is responsible for my mistakes but me. I think one curve ball we got was at the 11th hour, Val Kilmer ( Batman Forever) quit to do The Island of Dr. Moreau. There had been talks about it but none of us were involved, not with Warner Bros and certainly not with me. I talked to Val and all he kept saying is, "but man, it's Marlon Brando." It's not like he was on a hook and chain here, so Val went. So it was Bob Daly's (Chief Executive at Warner Bros at the time) idea to acquire George Clooney. He was an obvious choice because he was a rising star on ER, which he deserved. Had a talk with him and he was like, "Alright, if you do it I'll do it."
Then we had a desire to bring in Bat Girl, because to maybe get younger girls into the franchise. I mean I had a long history of fighting for unknowns, for fighting for a little extra budget when we needed it, so nobody never, ever forced me to make a decision I didn't approve of.
As a writer, I may get hung up on a shitty piece I wrote once in a while. Did this film ever affect you over time as an artist?
To be honest, I haven't thought about it much. My job is always about moving on. In fact, I was set to do another Batman. I even met with Nick Cage on the set of Face/Off because I was going to have him play The Scarecrow. Frankly, I was running out of villains. At the time I was all over the world doing press, because obviously, we didn't have Skype or electronics to do remote interviews, and let me tell you, the knives were out over Batman & Robin. But I did my job. So I'm in Rio, cutting the ribbon to yet another toy store with Warner Bros merchandise and I just thought… what the fuck is going on? So I went on a vacation to Mexico and I call my bosses and say, I just can't do another Batman. You would think they wouldn't want me to make another. But the licensing, the toys, the pajamas, they've produced astronomical numbers in sales. I just needed to get out of carrying the summer movie thing, for my own sanity.
So you did question yourself in a way.
Well, I literally had one of those bad soap opera moments when I was in Rio. I looked in the mirror and said, "Why did you want to be a director?" I remember starting as a $200 dollar a week costume designer before wanting to be a director. And I was there thinking, why did I want to do this? It was because I grew up behind a movie theatre when I was a kid, before television. I loved movies and wanted to tell those stories. So I said, let's get back down to basics, let's get out of here. It was very hard to leave Warner Bros, it was very painful because it had been my home for a very long time.
Going back to Batman & Robin, it still had to be a bit difficult given how different the superhero movie climate is compared to how it was back then. The blueprint for a good superhero movie was really only partially written.
Well yeah, there weren't a lot of on-film superheroes. Richard Donner had done such a great Americana, Aaron Copeland-esque take on Superman with Christopher Reeves which was such a sensation and such an epic in many ways. But Marvel really changed everything with Spider-man, such a fabulous character and they stayed very true to the origins with Tobey Maguire. So young and innocent like the original comic. For me, I was a bit in the dark, I wasn't aware, but I acknowledge that Tim had breathed such incredible new life into Batman and Jack Nicholson was just fabulous. And Kim Basinger, well what can you say, she was Kim Basinger, Prince music and all. I was so busy with promotions and travel since I did a movie almost every year. You try to get to these other movies, you try to see everything but I don't think I was in touch with the superhero world at the time.
Is there anything you ever wanted to say to fans that went into Batman & Robin expecting something different?
They obviously had very high expectations after Batman Forever. But perhaps it was the more innocent world in comparison, I don't know. I just know that I'll always go down over the nipples on Batman starting with Batman Forever.
Yes, I wanted to ask about the bat nipples. Please explain.
Ha! Such a sophisticated world we live in where two pieces of rubber the size of erasers on old pencils, those little nubs, can be an issue. It's going to be on my tombstone, I know it.
Was that your decision?
Well it was made by Jose Fernandez, who was our brilliant lead sculpture. If you look at Batman and Batman Returns, it was the genius Bob Ringwood that created those suits, so by the time we got to Batman Forever, the rubber and techniques had gotten so sophisticated. If you look at when Michael Keaton appears in the first suit, you'll notice how large it is. It was brilliant but the best they could do at the time. By the time Batman Forever came around, rubber molding had become so much more advanced. So I said, let's make it anatomical and gave photos of those greek status and those incredible anatomical drawings you see in medical books. He did the nipples and when I looked at them, I thought, that's cool.
I mean did it really bother people that much? Did it bother you?
It was just so different compared to what we were used to seeing on a Batman suit, you just couldn't unsee it.
You know what? I really never thought that would happen. I really didn't. Maybe I was just naive, but I'm still glad we did it.
I guess it was little things like that which angered fans, even the more light-hearted colourful Batman that you portrayed.
I guess I'll say, I hope no fans moved on from Batman upon first seeing my movie. When I was first approached to do Batman Forever, I said that it was Tim Burton's franchise. At the time Danny Devito's character with The Penguin was causing a ruckus among parents. Also, Michelle Pfeiffer with her fabulous bondage outfit didn't help matters. People across America were objecting to everything. Tim, who is a great friend of mine, begged me to take the franchise because of the pressure and he was ready to walk away. What's interesting to me is if you see Tim and my version, you can see how innocent viewers were back then.
It's really interesting to me is, because if you see Tim and my [films], you'd understand how innocent the audience was back then when it demanded to have more of a family-friendly Batman. Then when you see Christopher Nolan's trilogy, the last one especially where he's dealing with real class and economic problems, you see how the audience has changed in the fact that they can accept and want darker and darker subject matter.
You seem so cool about it, it seems like all the crap online, the Rotten Tomato scores, the reviews haven't really bothered you.
Well, I went on to make movies and I didn't have a nervous breakdown.
Woody Allen, one of many mentors of mine once said to never read anything about yourself because to believe the good, you would have to believe the bad and when they hate you, you remember every ugly word to the day that you die. It was great advice, because when I did St. Elmo's Fire in 1985, we received pages upon pages of reviews from a Xerox machine, and I didn't get one single good review in the whole of the United States of America. Zero. Afterwards, a lot of people still ended up seeing the movie and felt that I didn't need critical approval. I was never a critic's darling and that was freeing.
But look, I still apologize.
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